A Crown of Swords (The Wheel of Time #7)


A lean young man in a torn vest, whistling his way down the street with no good on his mind, paused when he glimpsed him sitting on the barrel. His coat and his location in the shadows—and the rest of him, he admitted ruefully—probably looked tempting. He reached under his coat. His hands no longer possessed the strength or flexibility for swordwork, but the two long knives he had carried for well over thirty years had surprised more than one swordsman. Maybe something showed in his eyes, because the lean young man thought better of it and whistled his way on.

Beside the house, the gate that led back to the goldsmith’s stable swung open, and two burly men appeared pushing a barrow piled high with soiled straw and muck. What were they up to? Arnin and Nad were hardly the lads to be mucking out stables.

He would stay here until dark, he decided, then see whether he could find Carridin’s pretty little killer again.

Once again he pulled his hand down from his head. Sooner or later, he would remember. He did not have much time left, but it was all he did have. He remembered that much.

Chapter 18

As the Plow Breaks the Earth

Seizing saidin long enough to unknot the ward he had woven across one corner of the anteroom, Rand raised his small silver-mounted cup and said, “More tea.” Lews Therin muttered angrily in the back of his head.

Carved chairs heavy with gilt stood in paired lines to either side of a golden Rising Sun, two paces wide, set into the polished stone floor, and another tall chair so gilded it seemed entirely gold topped a small dais that was just as elaborate, but he sat cross-legged on a carpet spread for the occasion, green and gold and blue in a Tairen maze. The three clan chiefs seated across from him would have disliked him receiving them from a chair even if they were offered their own. They were another maze, to be trod warily. He was in his shirt, sleeves pushed up his forearms to expose the red-and-gold Dragon that curled around each, glittering metallically. The Aielmen’s cadin’sor covered theirs, on the left arm alone. Perhaps the reminder of who he was—that he too had been to Rhuidean when the journey meant death for most men who entered—perhaps it was unnecessary. Perhaps.

Those three faces gave away little as they watched Merana come from the corner where she had been sealed off. Janwin’s creased face could have been carved from old wood, but it always looked that way, and if his blue-gray eyes seemed stormy, so did they always too. Even his hair looked like storm clouds. He was an even-tempered man, though. Indirian and one-eyed Mandelain might have been thinking of something else, except that their unblinking gazes followed her. Lews Therin suddenly went silent, as if he too watched, through Rand’s eyes.

Merana’s ageless features revealed even less than the clan chiefs’. Smoothing her pale gray skirts under, she knelt beside Rand and lifted the teapot. A massive ball of gold-washed silver, with leopards for feet and handle and another crouched on the lid, it required both of her hands and wavered a little as she carefully filled Rand’s cup. Her manner seemed to say she did this because she wanted to, for reasons of her own that none of them could begin to understand; her manner shouted Aes Sedai louder than her face did. Was that to the good, or the bad?

“I do not allow them to channel without permission,” he said. The clan chiefs kept silent. Merana rose and moved to kneel beside each in turn. Mandelain covered his cup with a broad hand to indicate he wanted no more. The other two held out theirs, blue-gray eyes and green alike studying her. What did they see? What more could he do?

Replacing the heavy teapot on the thick leopard-handled tray, she remained on her knees. “May I serve my Lord Dragon in any way else?”

Her voice was self-possession itself, but after he motioned her back to her corner, after she had risen and turned, slim hands clutched at her skirts for an instant. Yet that might have been because turning brought her to face Dashiva and Narishma. The two Asha’man—to be precise, Narishma was still only a soldier, the lowest level of Asha’man, with neither the sword nor the Dragon on his collar—the Asha’man stood impassively between two of the tall golden-framed mirrors that lined the walls. At least, the younger man looked impassive, at first glance. Thumbs tucked behind his sword belt, he ignored Merana and paid little more attention to Rand or the Aielmen, yet at a second glance you saw that his dark too-big eyes never rested, as if he expected the unexpected to leap out of the air any moment. And who could say it would not? Dashiva appeared to have his head in the clouds; his lips moved soundlessly, and he blinked and frowned at nothing.

Lews Therin snarled when Rand looked at the Asha’man, but it was Merana who occupied the dead man inside Rand’s head. Only a fool thinks a lion or a woman can truly be tamed.

Irritably, Rand suppressed the voice to a muted buzz. Lews Therin could break through, but not without effort. Grabbing hold of saidin, he rewove the ward that shut Merana away from their voices. Releasing the Source again increased his irritation, the hissing in his head, the water drops on red coals. An echo pulsing in time with Lews Therin’s mad, distant rage.

Merana stood behind the barrier she could neither see nor feel, head high and hands folded at her waist as if a shawl were looped over her arms. Aes Sedai to her toenails. She watched him and the clan chiefs with cool eyes, light brown flecked with yellow. My sisters do not all realize how very much we need you, she had told him this morning in this very room, but all of us who swore will do whatever you ask that would not violate the Three Oaths. He had just wakened when she came with Sorilea escorting her. Neither seemed to care at all that he was still in a robe, with only one bite taken from his breakfast bread. I have more than a little skill in negotiation and mediation. My sisters have other skills. Let us serve you, as we pledged. Let me serve you. We need you, but you have some need of us, too.

Ever present, Alanna lay nestled in a corner of his brain. She was weeping again. He could not understand why she wept so often. He had forbidden her to come near him unless summoned, or leave her room without an escort of Maidens—the sisters who had sworn to him had been found rooms last night, in the Palace where he could keep an eye on them—but he had sensed tears from the moment she bonded him, tears and a raw grief like being ripped by claws. Sometimes it was less, sometimes more, yet always there. Alanna also had told him he needed the sworn sisters, screamed it at him finally, with her face red and tears rolling down her cheeks, before literally running from his presence. And she had spoken of serving, too, though he doubted that Merana’s present tasks were what either had in mind. Perhaps some sort of l